Temple Grandin: Innovator and Advocate

It was the only place where she felt calmer, and she had created it for herself. Temple Grandin was just fifteen-years old when she designed and built the “squeeze machine,” or “hug box,” and she’s been using her extraordinary mind to innovate ever since.

Temple’s hug box was inspired by “squeeze” chutes used to hold cattle still during inoculation. She noticed that the chutes reduced — albeit inadvertently — the terrible fear and anxiety felt by cattle in unnatural environments. She intended the device to alleviate her own anxiety by way of deep pressure, which reduces sensory stimuli. For an autistic like Grandin, such a machine made the often-overwhelming experience of daily life bearable. Making this connection was her first realization of an affinity between her own experiences with intense anxiety and those of non-human animals. She went on to build an extraordinarily influential and wide-ranging career on this initial connection.

It was no more than two years after she was born in 1947 that Temple was diagnosed with autism. At the time, this condition was considered the result of brain damage, and young Temple was not initially given the sort of education that would help her develop her capacities to their fullest. Unwilling to let her daughter effectively rot away, Eustacia Cutler followed one doctor’s advice and hired a speech therapist and set to work developing Temple’s cognitive capacities. Not only did Grandin learn to speak, but she also went to college and graduate school, earning a B.A. degree in Psychology, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Animal Science. Since 1990, Temple has been an Animal Sciences professor at Colorado State University, where she combined her two passions: animals and autism advocacy. She also developed some thoughtful and strongly held views on education in the United States.

On the high functioning end of the spectrum — remarkably so, in fact — Grandin was in her forties when she started theorizing in earnest about why she could understand things about animals that other, “neurotypical” people couldn’t. She’d long been working with animals at that point, having both grown up around horses, cattle, and other livestock, and having trained as an animal scientist.

But she hadn’t just grown up around non-human animals. She’d lived through years of taunts and bullying from classmates. “Tape Recorder,” they said mockingly because of her tendency to repeat herself. “Retard,” they spat at her. Not one to go down without a fight, however, she hauled off and smacked them. Sure, Temple was different, but she was nobody’s fool. She noticed animals were a lot like that, too, and they accepted her just as she was. They saved her from emotional isolation when she was a schoolgirl, where the taunts and bullying had further isolated her. It was the gentle horses at her school — ones like Goldie who also had “emotional problems” — that gave her a safe haven. She wanted to return the favor.

A longtime advocate of humane treatment of animals, Temple’s work has largely centered on how animal suffering during the stockyard and slaughtering experience can be alleviated. To that end she has worked as a livestock handling facilities designer, and consulted for large corporations, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s.

An animal is a sensory-based thinker. In other words, they think in pictures and sounds and smells. She tells her students, “You want to understand animals, get away from language. It’s a sensory-based world.” The tone of vocalizations is important, but words aren’t. For example, as Temple points out, a fire hydrant is a huge information center for a dog. They can tell who’s been there, when, whether or not it was a friend or enemy — things you and I would not be able to glean for sniffing the hydrant! Similarly, a flag waving at the top of a pole at a vet center on a livestock handling facility is going to make cattle balk. The most sensible thing to do is take the flag down and put it somewhere else. But how did Grandin come know that this is how animals think? Because, she says, this is how she thinks. “When I was young,” she says, “I thought everybody thought in pictures.” For Temple, understanding animals’ suffering means understanding their minds — and she took that same approach when thinking about people, but it took her a while to realize the breadth of cognitive diversity in humans.

She worked with designers on meat packing plant designs. They could look at the same drawing for plant equipment, and she could make the equipment move, while most of the other designers couldn’t. That is one of the crucial attributes of Temple’s mind — and minds like hers. She explains it this way: “I can test run conveyors and other equipment in my mind like a 3D virtual reality program. I can make the equipment move in my mind to see if it will work correctly.”

Part of this mental process includes thinking about what a cow would see, rather than, like a differently minded person, simply think about the seemingly most expeditious way to get the cow from Point A to Point B. For Temple, not only is not thinking the way a cow does ultimately not expeditious, it’s not humane. Adding or remove lighting, for example, alleviates a cow’s stress, which makes the process better overall. How does she know to think about lighting? “I think in pictures, I don’t think in language,” she responds. This means she thinks in the way a cow would. She went on to redesign the chutes that lead up to the squeeze chutes. This, in turn, and led her into re-thinking all facets of cattle processing plants and their equipment, thereby significantly reducing these animals’ stresses.

A real breakthrough in understanding how different minds can be came during a chance conversation. She asked someone what happened when they thought of a steeple. Like many others, that woman pictured it in a generic way. Temple, on the other hand saw specific pictures — this steeple from her childhood or that steeple she saw the other day. They came up one at a time, but she saw them successively — she calls this feature of her mind photo realistic visual thinking. She always knew she was a very good visual thinker, but beginning to understand how others approached the steeple question was her “wow” moment.

But why a steeple? That’s just another feature of Temple’s innovative mind at work. A steeple is something we all know about but don’t own. Had she asked the woman about a car or a house, the woman would’ve described her own house and her own car, and that wouldn’t have got at what Temple was interested in learning. But something you don’t own? That’s when things get more general — you get a generalized image of a steeple — and that’s when Temple could better grasp how different minds work. She went on to ask different people about their steeple idea, and she got a number of different answers. One speech therapist heard bells — no visual whatsoever. Another speech therapy professor couldn’t visualize walking up the stairs to her campus office and opening her office door. “But that’s rare,” Temple says.

“Most people, I think, are combinations of cognitive styles. Now, where the cognitive styles really tend to make a difference — you have some people like that are really good visually, but things like algebra, I’m terrible.” It doesn’t make her or people like her less intelligent or capable than other types of thinkers, but it does, Grandin asserts, mean that their learning process is different — and it should be respected as such. “People that are more middle of the road, there’s a lot of plasticity in the brain…But on the extremes, there are some people who can hear a piece of music and instantly know it. I’m a big proponent of building on the kid’s strength. You’re good at music, build on it. You’re good at drawing…build on it.”

Temple has long been concerned that kids who are different, like those with autism, don’t have the same opportunities to capitalize on the ways their brains work. Not every autistic kid is a visual thinker — not every kid, period, is a visual thinker. The autistic thinker is a specialist thinker, regardless. Good at one thing, and generally not good at everything else. Temple was bad at algebra, and for this reason did not get moved on to geometry or trigonometry, but those Math subjects were exactly where she should have been placed!

Temple learned this approach to thinking about cognitive diversity from animals. Cattle balk at rapid movement and contrast — hence the reason for moving the flag at the handling facility. To understand this better, she got right down into the cattle chute to see what they were seeing. Her picture thinking was an essential asset to her livestock handling facilities designs, which improves how cattle are treated during the stages of the slaughtering process.

Getting into the thick of it is how Temple thinks all sorts of problems should be solved. “People have a hard time, when troubleshooting, sort of figuring out where a problem is,” Temple explains. People don’t ask the right questions, or enough questions. Suppose someone’s having trouble with a kid, they don’t consider what the problem could be — biological, behavioral. Maybe the child has a hidden, painful medical problem. “I have to ask a lot of questions,” Temple says. “The word-thinker overgeneralizes. I’ll have people say to me things like, ‘My dog is crazy. What do I do about it?’ Well, I can visualize a lot of ways a dog is crazy: happy and jumping on you, or attacking you. I don’t know what a crazy dog is to find out what the dog actually did.”

People who think in words “are too top-down” and that negatively affects their problem solving. Behavior problems in the classroom have to be diagnosed by asking lots of questions, not simply going to a solution. Not knowing the cause of a problem typically means failure in solving it. This leads Temple to believe that we not only need to respect diverse cognitive styles, but need to return to a diverse education, which involves much more hands-on learning than is found in our current system. “Kids aren’t making stuff anymore, they’re not learning how to problem solve. They’re not learning how to figure stuff out.” For this reason, she endorses a return to the trades, art, music, and all sorts of hands-on educational experiences that will speak to our different cognitive styles and contribute to shaping their cognitive flexibility — and the varied skill sets needed to create and sustain successful societies. “We need different kinds of minds,” Temple insists. “We have huge shortages right now in this country in the skilled trades, things like diesel mechanics, auto mechanics, welders, millwrights.” Diverse minds are essential to civilization’s progress.

Grandin has managed, through the combination of her own experience, intellect, education, and facility with language to become a sought-after public speaker on autism and helping people appreciate the range of cognitive styles and capacities in human beings. Since the mid-1980s, she has been giving talks on autism across the country while maintaining her career as an animal scientist. Her ability to clearly describe to others what it feels like to be hypersensitive to noise, to be unable to bear certain physical contact, and to feel the rage and pain of being taunted and tormented by ignorant children has allowed others to begin understanding that difference is not the mark of inferiority.

Perhaps Grandin’s singular accomplishment is having overcome her autism by embracing it. In so doing, she has become a uniquely qualified advocate not only for autism, cognitive diversity, and educating diverse minds, but also for animal rights. For someone diagnosed with autism, the level of empathy exhibited by her activism is extraordinary. It’s extraordinary not because, as an autistic, she doesn’t have feelings, but because society has, for decades, misunderstood the condition.

Though Temple has said that she is not particularly interested in the feelings that neurotypical individuals take for granted, there can be little doubt that she has a deep understanding of the frantic and directionless nature of anxiety. To articulate so clearly a lived experience that resists coherent accounts makes Grandin even more extraordinary than her already extraordinary story is. That’s because she has found a way to connect with others in a profoundly meaningful way.

Now almost 70-years old, Temple Grandin has not merely adjusted to a life that can feel unbearable at times, she has reshaped it both for herself, for other autistics, for those of us who cannot possibly experience life as she knows it, and for non-human animals. We have all benefitted from Temple’s extraordinary accomplishments, her drive to come to terms with who she is and to celebrate it.

There is no doubt that Grandin’s advocacy on behalf of the idea that autism is not something to be cured, that there is value in diverse types of minds, has improved many lives. Temple Grandin’s mind — Temple Grandin herself — is a living testament to what can be accomplished when you live your most authentic life. So, what type of mind are you and what is your most authentic life?



Interview with Dr. Grandin on September 23, 2015







Grandin, Temple, and Johnson, Catherine, Creating The Best Life for Animals. Mariner Books, 2014.

Grandin, Temple, and Johnson, Catherine, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. Scribner, 2006.

Grandin, Temple, The Autistc Brain: Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed. Mariner Books, 2014.

Grandin, Temple, The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s, 2nd Ed. Future Horizons, 2011.

Sacks, Oliver, An Anthropologist on Mars. Knopf, 1995.

Author: girlzillawrites

I am a philosophy professor and writer with a diverse set of research interests. My favorite courses to conduct are all introductory: critical thinking, symbolic logic, ancient philosophy, early modern philosophy, social and political philosophy, and ethics. My philosophical loves are Kant and Kierkegaard, but I happen to be smitten pretty much with whoever I'm reading at the moment.

What do you think?